Purpose

Social media provides powerful ways to communicate and have re-defined human interactions in the 21st century. When faculty assign social media use for a course, it can help engage students in expression or discussion of their ideas. However, when students are required (or encouraged) to register for, post on, upload to, or otherwise communicate via a service or platform not licensed by New York University, it may raise concerns about students’ rights, privacy and accessibility requirements.

These concerns are particularly acute considering our global university; a significant portion of our community members are teaching, learning, and working in nations where laws and norms are different or are interpreted differently than in the United States, and where students are often experimenting with identities and expressions in class that they would never share with the people at home.  And in the United States and abroad, the use of these platforms can create complicated issues related to compliance with FERPA and students’ rights under NYU policy.

This document is aimed at guiding NYU faculty and staff who are considering encouraging or requiring the use of third-party services or platforms as part of their courses, and their interactions with students when these interactions take place on third-party platforms or social media.  This includes the collective of online communications channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration. It can be any combination of service, platform, software or device, that facilitates creation and storage of user-generated content (UGC) and places control of collaboration and dissemination of UGC completely within the control of a user rather than an organization.  The use in the context of a course can take the form of a requirement for the course itself, as with students being asked to edit an entry on Wikipedia or post on Instagram, or as a communications tool in the class itself, as with the use of Slack or Facebook to communicate with the students.

Issues

Though faculty have the right to teach in the manner appropriate to their classes, they should assess the possible risks when requiring social media use on non-NYU platforms, either as a class assignment or in their own interactions with students. The intersection of personal and professional digital environments creates challenges for our university community members. 

  • PII and IP.  It is important to protect students’ personally identified or identifiable information (PII) from use by social media companies, to protect student PII placed on social sites from public access, and to protect students’ rights to the intellectual property (IP) contained in their content.  PII may include anything that links data to a particular individual, including but not limited to: names, location information, ID numbers, dates of birth.
  • Privacy and FERPA.  Faculty and staff at NYU have opportunities to use social media and third-party platforms to advance teaching, learning, and scholarship. Just as students have the right, under FERPA, to opt-out of allowing NYU to share directory information, they have the right to use  social media in a manner that prevents public disclosure of their IP, contact information or other personal details. Faculty and staff have a responsibility to ensure that the use of such services does not compromise either NYU policies or the values at the heart of teacher-student and mentor-mentee relationships.  Simply put, NYU must comply with FERPA, and many apps and platforms do not comply. Thus, where faculty have made a reasoned determination to require the use of such non-compliant apps or platforms, students will need to sign a FERPA waiver at the time of enrollment in the class, not after enrollment. It is not acceptable to merely offer a student the opportunity to “opt out” after enrollment.
  • Accessibility.  Accessibility is an important part of instruction and community activities at NYU.  In order to provide an inclusive environment for teaching and learning, all services used (including social media apps and third party software) must be accessible to all or, in circumstances where they cannot be, accommodations must be provided.  Faculty and staff at NYU have a responsibility for ensuring that such services are appropriately available to all teachers and learners (and the public if the service is public). See NYU’s Website Accessibility Policy.  This covers websites, web applications, and web content.

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Faculty Responsibilities for In-Class (or Remote Classroom) Usage

Faculty who have made a reasoned determination to use third party apps or tools in a classroom are responsible for determining whether the app or tool complies with FERPA, web accessibility requirements, and other regulatory or privacy requirements (e.g. GDPR requirements).  If a faculty member requires students to use a social media app or a third-party platform or software/web tool, faculty should specify that requirement in the course description prior to enrollment by students. This will minimize the disruption to any students deciding to request accommodations or declining to enroll upon learning of these expectations. The expectations should be in the form of written guidance posted on the course’s class site and delivered in a soft and hard copy form to the students, ideally in the syllabus. The course syllabus is the first contact between the instructor and the learners and so sets the tone for the course.

Sample Syllabus Language: 

During this class, students will be required to use [list app/platform/software] as a part of course studies, and thus, will be required to agree to the “terms of use” (TOU) associated with such [app/platform/software]. [Choose applicable sentence:] These services do not require you to create an account. OR These services require you to create an account, but you can use a pseudonym (which may not identify you to the public community, but which may still identify you by IP address to the company and companies with whom it shares data). OR These services require you to create or use an account identifying you personally. 

You should read carefully those terms of use regarding the impact on your privacy rights and intellectual property rights.  If you have any questions regarding those terms of use or the impact on the class, you are encouraged to ask the instructor prior to enrollment.

Unless the course topic is the study of social media or third-party sites, faculty should use such sites only as secondary or tertiary channels for instruction, and not as required for the class. Where such services are used, students should always be given an alternative channel to access instructional content and interaction. Students should be given the option of posting under a pseudonym. (This recommendation makes it hard to use sites with “Real Names” policies like Facebook or WeChat; additionally, even when using a pseudonym, your data may still be identified to your IP address by the app or platform company, and other companies with whom it shares that data) Students should not be required to create an account to view class activities on social media.

NYU-provided services (e.g., NYU Classes, NYU Box, NYU Web Publishing (WordPress), select Google Apps for Education) have typically been vetted by Office of General Counsel and NYU IT’s Office of Policy and Compliance for privacy, FERPA, and HIPAA compliance.  For instance, in 2011, NYU negotiated with Google regarding the university’s use of Google Apps for Education suite (NYU Email, Calendar, Drive, Groups,), which stipulates that while Google is able to monitor traffic and usage patterns to optimize and customize search, Google will not monetize information captured in these apps (i.e., via advertising targeting and demographic sharing).  Forwarding NYU email to your personal email account exposes those emails to “regular” Google Terms of Use, with less protection than NYU has negotiated for the core Google Education Apps (but not including the “Add Ons” and other Google apps) and allows the monetization of your personal data. The major risk in using social media or third-party web tools to provide instruction is the lack of such protections.  Similar risk may exist in using third-party applications without appropriate security, compliance, or accessibility checks.

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General Considerations for Use of Social Media

Remember: The typical business model of free social media and third party sites is that the demographics collected and data mining conducted by these companies on their users then can be sold or licensed to third parties without restriction. As such, in addition to the privacy issues addressed above (e.g. FERPA), be careful when giving away your personal information to non-NYU licensed third party tools, and be careful about asking students to do so, as you do not know how and when this information would be used.

The key to being safe online is thinking about the service involved and what protections may be important.

  • Check the default setting when using third party software. Set it to “non-public” if possible.
  • Review the Terms of Use for the service you are using, especially in regard to data ownership and re-use.  The Terms of Service (TOS) (or Terms of Use) Agreement is mainly used for legal purposes by organizations which provide software or services, such as browsers, e-commerce, or search engines. A legitimate TOS or TOU agreement is legally binding and may be subject to change. TOSBack.org, supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, lists changes in terms and policies.
  • Think through creating friend/fan/follower connections where authority relationships exist (e.g., faculty/student, supervisor/employee). Many times, you cannot control someone sharing your content or adding you to their connections, thereby gaining visibility to your content.
  • Plan how to handle a situation where a student is uncomfortable with the public nature of the social media or third-party service.
  • Think about the accessibility of the service and therefore how available it is to your students.  The Digital Accessibility team is available for consultation. The Digital Accessibility Procedures documents how to acquire accessibility software or services.
  • Follow NYU IT Security updates and news to see if new threats are present in the service 
  • Note that the "Add-Ons" in Google Docs have separate data policies and are not covered by the NYU Google Apps for Ed agreement.

As voice-based services become more popular (e.g., Siri, Amazon Echo, Facebook app on your mobile device), be aware that these services may be active in the background and bemining or monetizing those voice recordings.  For these reasons (in addition to the priacy considerations addressed above), be thoughtful in requiring or recommending voice-based services as a channel for communication between/among faculty and students.

Individual NYU schools may offer school-based tools and services. The NYU IT Office of Information Security is available to help assess and vet such tools. We urge schools and individual faculty members to avail themselves of this consultation.

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Scenarios

The following examples are meant to describe the landscape where faculty must apply the best practicesoutlined in these Guidelines:

  • A student(s) is encouraged to post data about their grades, projects, past education, jobs, or written articles to an academic social networking site such as ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and/or LinkedIn, which may compromise privacy and confidentiality. A faculty member may ask or try to require students to join Twitter to scrape data for classwork or to observe social connections.
  • A student(s) or faculty member may need data controlled by for-profit companies for their research. Is there an agreement or ‘Terms of Use’ (not entered into by NYU) related to access to the data, which may impact the ability of the student or researcher to publish the findings?
  • A student(s) or faculty member (or staff) is asked to establish a “friend” or “follow” between one another on social media which they may object to.  
  • A student(s) and/or researcher(s) using Google Glass is required to sign/accept Google’s Terms of Use, which may restrict their ability to conduct and publish research and novel inventions based on this platform.
  • A student(s) and/or researcher(s) may want to create a satire or parody account of real people in certain social media for their creative practice.

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References & Resources

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